New man on campus at Lamar State College-Orange

For Dr. Thomas Johnson taking over the Lamar State College-Orange presidency feels like a homecoming. Johnson, who retired from law enforcement after serving 20 years, was born in Port Arthur and went to Sam Houston Elementary, living only a few blocks away on 42nd Street.

“We have a long history in this area,” Johnson told The Business Journal. “During World War II, my mother worked in the Texaco refinery because during the war women went into the refinery. My grandfather worked there. Once the war was over, she met my father and he went to work in the Texaco refinery. This was 1945.”

Johnson left Southeast Texas when he was around 6 years old. His family moved to Livingston.

“The reason we went up there is because my father got hurt on the job and disability doesn’t pay much money at all. I grew up very poor. Good family, but we just didn’t have any money. I worked odd jobs, whatever I could take, so I could have a little cash. …
"At Livingston, I played football. I was not that great, but you play football when you go to a Texas high school. My good sport was track. I went to regional in cross-country track. I was a pretty good runner because I was so skinny back then. … but, I was no sprinter by any stretch of the imagination.”

Johnson’s road to being a leader in academia wasn’t your normal route.

“We didn’t have much money at all, but my parents did scrape up enough money for me to go to summer school at Angelina College,” Johnson said, adding that he was able to take dual credit classes in high school that counted as college classes.

While watching cheerleader tryouts at Angelina College, Johnson noticed one of the girls at the bottom was having trouble lifting the other cheerleader. Upon bragging that he could do a better job, one of the cheerleading sponsors approached Johnson, asking if he thought he could pick her up. He accepted the challenge and the rest was history. “She’s said you’ve got a scholarship. You’re now a college cheerleader.”

Johnson said he thrived at Angelina and was part of Phi Theta Kappa, the honor society. He also received an invitation from his Government professor to be part of a group to visit Washington D.C.  

“He said we choose one individual from the school to represent the college in Washington D.C. and we’re going to choose you,” Johnson said. “All I heard was I’m going to Washington D.C. I’m leaving East Texas.”

Part of the program was to meet the congressman representing the district.

“I met Charlie Wilson,” Johnson said. While he was there Johnson noticed young interns working for congressmen and asked Wilson how he could get a job doing the same.
“He said, ‘Tommy, I like you. Write me a letter.” Six weeks later Johnson was working in Washington D.C. for Charlie Wilson. “It changed the trajectory of my life. Charlie allowed me to see things that I would have never been able to see in my entire lifetime.”

Johnson worked as an intern for Wilson in the summer of ’82 and ’84.

In July of 1982, Wilson asked Johnson to go watch President Ronald Reagan speak because he had a prior engagement. The young man was ecstatic.

“I got to hear Reagan speak twice,” he said.

Because Johnson had done so well academically at Angelina College, he was able to attend Sam Houston State University on scholarships.

“I majored in Criminology and Corrections because I wanted to be a lawyer,” he said. “ I thought that would be a good background. I knew they had a great criminal justice program.”

After graduating Magna Cum Laude, Johnson went back to work for Wilson in the summer of ’84, but missed home. A friend suggested he go to work for the Houston Police Department (HPD), so Johnson could work during the night and go to law school during the day. Johnson went into the police academy that August.

“While I was there, I met a girl, fell in love and got married, so I had to put law school on (hold),” he said.

The 100 Club selected Johnson to fund his master’s degree in Criminal Justice Management from Sam Houston State University. He received this degree in 1989.

This allowed Johnson to move out of patrol and become the training administrator of the Houston Police Academy in 1993.

“That’s the largest police academy in the state and the fourth largest in the entire nation,” Johnson explained. “There are 5,500 police officers working for HPD and 2,000 civilians. The campus for the police academy sits on 70 acres. I was in charge of training and keeping up the education for these 7,000 (+) employees.”

Realizing the police academy was really an educational institution, Johnson went back to school and got his Doctorate in Higher Education from Texas Southern University in 1998.

After receiving his doctorate, Johnson was made director of planning and research.

“Once I got my doctorate, I had a former professor at Sam who couldn’t teach a class ask me if I’d be willing to teach it,” he said. Johnson fell in love with teaching at the college level.

The last four years of his police career, Johnson taught at both Sam Houston State and Houston Community College at night.

“I told my wife, I love higher education. I really think I can make an impact there. So when I retired, I went to work at Sam Houston State University running their Border Intelligence Network Grant. Texas has a number of counties that touch Mexico. I coordinated with the sheriffs of those counties as well as DPS — any law enforcement agency on the Texas border to try to unify some of the things that they were doing because we found they were doing a lot of good things, but doing them separately. That was nice, but I was running a grant and I wanted to teach.
“After that, I spent 12 years with Tyler Junior College.”

Beginning in 2006, Johnson served in a variety of positions at the college including chair of the Public Safety Technology department and associate dean of the School of Applied Studies, before ascending to assistant vice president of student affairs.

Johnson resigned from Tyler Junior College to accept the Lamar State College-Orange president position. He arrived on campus Aug. 20.

“I was fortunate to go through the entire process and be selected as president of this great college,” he said.

What attracted Johnson to LSC-O?

“This gives me an opportunity to do what I’ve wanted to do my entire lifetime — educate first generation kids who were like me, who were poor kids, who all they needed was the opportunity. Nobody ever gave me anything, they just provided me the opportunity,” he said. “When I interviewed for the position, I said if you’re looking for someone to be here 3-4 years, I’m not your individual. I’m the kind of guy that spent 20 years with HPD and 12 years with Tyler Junior College. I’ve essentially had two jobs over the last 30 plus years. If you want someone who will be part of the community and will focus on educating students, I’m your guy. I believe a community college is the economic engine. It means economic growth, which leads to degree attainment. Degree attainment allows for social mobility — people can rise to wherever they want. Secondly, it increases regional prosperity. … I want people to be able to get a certificate or a degree, so they can learn a trade or if they want to go on and get a four-year degree, we want to give them first-class education, so they can get that degree.”